By Tonia Moxley
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., gave no indication Wednesday that he had been upstaged by the announcement that first lady Michelle Obama would join him in giving a commencement address at Virginia Tech on May 11.
“Tech gets a two-fer!” Warner joked.
This will be only the second time in Tech’s 140-year history that graduates will hear two speeches before turning their tassels. The last time was in 1958, when the speakers were Paul N. Garber, bishop of Virginia Methodist Conference, and J. Manning Potts, editor of The Upper Room, according to listings on Tech’s website.
Warner was magnanimous about sharing the spotlight with a fellow Democrat.
“I am so pleased to share the commencement duties with the first lady,” Warner said. “Since two of us will be addressing the graduates and their families, I promise we’ll follow Winston Churchill’s advice: ‘Be clear. Be brief. Be seated.'”
Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the university was pleasantly surprised when the White House contacted Tech about the visit. Warner had already been chosen and announced as the keynote speaker, but was “very gracious” when told about the first lady’s choice, Hincker said.
According to a White House news release, Obama will speak at three college graduation ceremonies this spring, beginning with Tech and continuing with North Carolina A&T and Oregon State University.
Virginia and North Carolina are key swing states that President Barack Obama carried in 2008.
The first lady chose Tech because she was “inspired by the resilience of the student body and community coming together to support each other during difficult times,” the release stated.
Since 2007, Tech has suffered a string of high-profile tragedies, the worst of which was the mass shooting on April 16, 2007, that took the lives of 33 people and left more than a dozen others wounded.
A beheading at a campus cafe in 2009 and the December killing of Tech police officer Deriek Crouse by a Radford University student have also rocked the community.
In a statement issued by Tech, university President Charles Steger called Michelle Obama’s visit an honor.
“This is the first time a First Lady has addressed a Virginia Tech commencement,” Steger wrote. “So this is a unique opportunity to welcome two dynamic leaders who are outstanding role models for today’s young men and women.”
More than 5,000 undergraduates and their families normally attend the ceremony, and Obama’s visit is expected to boost those numbers significantly.
University officials are already planning for traffic congestion and the logistics, security issues and extra costs it will entail, Hincker said.
The visit comes just as Tech has revamped scheduling of its entire commencement program. Last year, lightning forced officials to clear Lane Stadium before the 7:30 p.m. undergraduate ceremony concluded. This year it will begin at noon.
Obama is not the first presidential visitor to the university.
President George W. Bush attended the memorial convocation in Cassell Coliseum on April 17, 2007, and former President Bill Clinton gave a stump speech at Tech in 2008 on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton, when she was running for president.
This will be the second time Warner has imparted wisdom to new Tech grads. Warner gave the commencement address in 2002 as the newly-elected Virginia governor.
In all, 21 sitting governors have addressed Hokie graduates, beginning in 1873 with Gov. Gilbert Walker.
Staff writer Michael Sluss contributed to this report.